Mayberry v. Starsky & Hutch: Public perception of police work

By William J. Patsche

In today’s politically correct world, police are often accused of profiling, selective enforcement, excessive force, racial insensitivity, along with a multitude of other complaints. We will never satisfy all of the naysayers, but we can improve our image by changing our perception and the perception of others.

Traffic Stops are the most frequent site of police-citizen contact (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
One of the most difficult problems that a police executive faces is the changing and sometimes negative attitude of  the people we are sworn to protect. The public’s perception of law enforcement is critical to maintaining an efficiently operating organization and, without the support of that public, we will not have the full ability to complete our tasks. Currently, in many jurisdictions, police organizations and community members have an almost adversarial relationship.

“Attitude” can be defined as posture, relative position, feeling, opinion, or mood.  When a member of the public describes the police as having a poor attitude, he or she could be referring to the officers’ physical demeanor, tone of voice, mannerisms, or his uniform and appearance.

The perceived bad attitude of one officer to one member of the public will have ramifications many times over and could affect the entire department. An officer who approaches a citizen with his hat pushed back on his head or with a cigarette dangling from his lips doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. A simple thing like a wrinkled uniform and dirty shoes can do a lot to exacerbate a negative image.

 In the world of cop movies and television programs, sarcastic comments may be acceptable. For example, the cop-actor may be depicted in the process of issuing a citation for a traffic violation. When the motorist asks the officer if he has a quota to achieve, the scripted reply might be, “No—I can write all the tickets that I choose,” or “Yes—two more tickets and I win a new TV." In real life, these comments wouldn't go over too well.

Other reasons for these poor perceptions are many and varied. Sometimes the fault lies with the public’s unreasonable expectations. Television and movies project unrealistic impressions of an officer’s duties.

Members of the public often have the perception that officers can be categorized  into what I refer to as the “Mayberry” mentality, where Sheriff Andy Taylor and Officer Barney Fife sit on the porch and consume donuts all day.

The second impression is the Starsky and Hutch category. In this role, if the police don’t shoot three or four criminals and engage in at least two car chases per shift (resulting in massive damages and mayhem), as well as solve all problems within the allotted time slot, then they must not be doing their duty. When an actual incident does occur without a “movie ending,” the public is often dismayed.

We are all aware that movie endings happen only in the theater. Let’s face it, in movies, serious crimes are solved by using scientific equipment and resources only available to a small portion of the approximately 17,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies, with a majority of these departments averaging twenty-five or fewer officers.

How can we solve this problem?

I spoke with a chief who suggested mailing customer satisfaction cards to individuals who have had contact with the police by way of a complaint. The cards would be preprinted and stamped, with 4-5 questions to be answered by checking a yes/no box, with an area for comments. Replies can be anonymous. If identical complaints against the same officer(s) were noted, corrective action could be taken. The downside is that most surveys of this type have a response rate of about 10%.

Another suggestion is to assign an individual—perhaps a retired officer—to follow up on complaints. In many cities, this could be cost prohibitive.

Police citizens’ academies are perhaps one of the most effective means of educating the public by helping change and improve the perception of the police department. As a presenter at several of such classes, I was impressed by the diversity of the attendees: The volunteers were extremely interested in police work, and included businessmen, laborers, factory workers and college students, to name but a few. It’s not the ultimate solution, but it’s a beginning.  If you improve the understanding of a few, the results will be tenfold. 

In her book Police Communication in Traffic Stops (the most frequent site of police-citizen contact), Angela Woodhull writes: “Communication.  It’s the whole job. . .Police work is 50% waiting for something to happen, 20% reacting to what is occurring, 25% reporting what occurred, and, if you’re lucky, 5% enjoying a feeling of accomplishment or self satisfaction. . .”(1)

We could add that, in addition to self-satisfaction, we need the satisfaction of those we serve.

Bill Patsche is a 28-year veteran of law enforcement : 20 as Lieutenant and five as Chief of the Martin's Ferry (OH) PD. He spent ten years with OLETC, a program of NIJ and was a law enforcement LE instructor at the regional and state level. Bill has instructed TSA personnel in disguised weapons; he also attended Executive Leadership College in Ohio.

(1)  Woodhull, Angela V., PhD.  Police Communication in Traffic Stops.
            Schenkman Books, Inc., Rochester, VT., 1993


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